Saturday, September 24

Champions Cup team of the season: best XV from this year’s tournament | Champions Cup


Welcome to The Breakdown, the Guardian’s weekly (and free) rugby union newsletter. Here’s an extract from this week’s edition. To receive the full version every Tuesday, just pop your email in below:

15) Michael Lowry, Ulster

The fact that Lowry made the most meters in the tournament as well as the joint-most clean breaks despite Ulster going out in the last 16 says everything about what a running threat he is. His performances by him in the pool stages earned him a nomination for the European player of the year award and though Ulster were edged out by Toulouse despite a famous away win in the first leg, Lowry lit up the competition during the dark winter months.

14) Teddy Thomas, Racing 92

Other wingers scored more tries, made more clean breaks and more meters than Thomas but statistics only tell you so much about the Racing flyer. The three-time runners-up blew hot and cold throughout their campaign but there are few better sights than Racing in full flow, and that is when Thomas comes to life. His finish against Sale, somehow avoiding going into touch, was remarkable and his effortless change of pace is still deceptive.

13) Gaël Fickou, Racing 92

“I’ve seen the future and it runs, tackles, scores tries and is called Gaël Fickou,” wrote Shaun Edwards in the Guardian back in 2012 and, as is often the case with France’s defense coach, he wasn’t wrong. Whether it be for France or for Racing, Fickou is a consistently supreme performer these days, robust in defense and constantly a threat in attack.

12) Pita Ahki, Toulouse

Toulouse have more heralded backs but Ahki is a reliable presence in midfield for the five-times champions. In their shootout victory over Munster, Akhi was the glue who held Toulouse together as they clawed their way back into the contest. He is not one to revel in the limelight but a number of New Zealanders have impressed during their time with Toulouse and Ahki is the latest.

11) Raymond Rhule, La Rochelle

Another whose contributions cannot solely be measured by metrics, and though James Lowe finished as the top try-scorer with an eye-catching set of all-round statistics, there remains a lingering sense that he is something of a flat-track bully. Rhule, on the other hand, delivered when it mattered most in Marseille, coming up with the opening try to round off a highly impressive campaign with La Rochelle.

Johnny Sexton, now 36, has been a joy to watch this season for Leinster. Photograph: Ramsey Cardy/Sportsfile/Getty Images

10) Johnny Sexton, Leinster

No player in the history of the competition has won five titles but few have come closer than the evergreen Leinster fly-half. Sexton has been a joy to watch throughout this season’s competition, steering one of the slickest attacks Europe has seen in recent years. It helps when his forward pack is on top and though La Rochelle denied him that type of service in Saturday’s final, Sexton battled manfully in pursuit of the fifth star he so covets. His semi-final performance against Toulouse was flawless.

9) Nolann Le Garrec, Racing 92

Racing’s swashbuckling scrum-half has displayed a maturity well beyond his 20 years in this season’s competition and it is surely a matter of time before he wins his first France cap. Antoine Dupont may be the France captain and incumbent scrum-half but it does not feel a stretch to say that Le Garrec will put him under pressure in the coming years. In the quarter-final victory over Sale he was the best player on the pitch by a distance and he has an assuredness from the kicking tee to boot.

1) Dany Priso, La Rochelle

Ball-handling skills to die for and part of a pack that yielded to no one throughout La Rochelle’s victorious campaign. Priso has done magnificently well to battle back from the disappointment of missing out on France’s 2019 World Cup squad and losing his place in the La Rochelle side. The manner in which he blends physicality with a poise on the ball makes him typical of the side that Ronan O’Gara has built on the Atlantic coast.

2) Pedestrian Mauvaka, Toulouse

Both starting finalists may seem like more obvious choices – Ronan Kelleher had been excellent throughout the competition until his early departure through injury and Pierre Bourgarit was arguably man of the match in Marseille – but Mauvaka is box office. He fulfilled the super-sub role for both Toulouse and France more often than not, in both instances playing second fiddle to Julien Marchand, but any hooker capable of the pass that released Matthis Lebel against Munster is worthy of a place in this side.

Dany Priso on the charge for La Rochelle against Castres in January.
Dany Priso on the charge for La Rochelle against Castres in January. Photograph: Valentine Chapuis/AFP/Getty Images

3) Tadhg Furlong, Leinster

A cornerstone of the Leinster pack but so much more than that, as his astonishing long pass to Hugo Keenan in the semi-final win over Toulouse so clearly demonstrated. He went off in that match after less than 20 minutes and almost immediately Toulouse were able to gain ascendancy at the scrum. He was a doubt for the final as a result but when he is fit and firing there is no other tighthead prop around who boasts his remarkable skillset.

4) Ross Molony, Leinster

Another Leinster second-row to emerge from St Michaels. It is clearly a position of great strength for the province so it is to Molony’s great credit that he has finally established himself in the side on the biggest stage, having toiled away in the URC for years. His handling skills from him were to the fore against Toulouse and though the competition is obvious it is a surprise that he is still awaiting a first Ireland cap.

5) Will Skelton, La Rochelle

He made only three starts in this season’s competition and missed both the quarters and semis but his performance in the final alone, going strong for the full 80 minutes, means Skelton demands inclusion. Leinster will be sick of the sight of him after his power from him also proved decisive when playing in the 2019 final for Saracens and once more the Irish side could not cope with the Australian giant.

6) Wenceslas Lauret, Racing 92

Scored a hat-trick in the opening round when Racing 92 so emphatically thrashed Northampton in an early statement of intent and is such a consistent performer in a side who tends to be anything but. He gets through a huge amount of work on the blindside and is an effective weapon at the lineout too. When Racing cut loose in the final quarter it is often because Lauret has emptied the tank, softening up defenses.

7) Josh van der Flier, Leinster

Named the official European player of the year after a final in which he made a staggering 25 tackles in a losing cause, rounding off a campaign in which he has established himself as one of the leading openside flankers in the world. His red scrum-cap from him makes him that much more visible but Van der Flier is ubiquitous around the park for Leinster and is a considerable try-scoring threat too.

8) Gregory Alldritt, La Rochelle

It has been some season for Alldritt, adding the European crown to the Six Nations grand slam and no player exerted such an obvious influence on both success stories. Indeed, the tournament statistics demonstrate just how impressive Alldritt has been with a barely believable 135 carries – 55 more than any other player. He also beat 29 defenders, joint top with Lowry, and the only forward in the top six. He was mightily impressive against Leinster but his performance against Racing in the semi-final sticks in the mind.

Replacements: Pierre Bourgarit (La Rochelle), Ellis Genge (Leicester), Uini Atonio (La Rochelle), Lood De Jager (Sale), Peter O’Mahony (Munster), Jamison Gibson-Park (Leinster), Romain Ntamack (Toulouse), Thomas Ramos (Toulouse).


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